The thought of participating in The Canadian Death race started off as a bet amongst three friends. As time passed, two dropped out leaving me alone in my quest to run the 125 kilometers through the Canadian Rockies. How nice of them! My quest soon turned into obsession.
I decided that my training would start at the beginning of August 2009, about one year in advance of the 2010 Canadian Death Race. My training started off strong and the mileage picked up faster than I anticipated. This strong start lasted until four weeks later when I was bed ridden with a nasty chest infection. Too much; too fast! The infection lasted almost three weeks, negating any gains that I strived so hard for in the last month. And to top it all off my wife and I moved to a new home, which threw my training off track even further. In short, my pursuit of The Canadian Death Race was derailed until January 1, 2010.
New Year’s day would mark the start of a seven-month journey towards a goal I didn’t think was possible. It didn’t help that I started my first day of training hung over! Nonetheless, I dragged my beaten body out of bed and slogged through my first eight tough miles. Surprisingly, by the end of this run, I felt alive again!
Everyday a little voice inside my head kept repeating, “Work hard and you will finish.” I became obsessed with this mantraand researched every aspect of the training process. I learned from past experiences and slowly built my mileage to the point where I could run back-to-back long runs with ease. Nothing could stop me now.
Fast-forward to May. My training runs took me into the mountains for hours on end. I would wake up at 4 a.m. and finish at 1 p.m. My wife was none to pleased. I tried to explain, “That the training was necessary,” but nothing I said could convince her that my reasoning was anything but sane. She started to worry and for good reason. Many of the runs were spent on remote mountain paths smattered with rattlesnakes and other hazardous obstacles.
She questioned my motive when I came home scraped up from head to toe. I had just fallen 10 feet down a rock littered hill after tripping on one of my poles. Several days later, my face started to swell. Apparently, I slid head first into some poison ivy. I woke up the next morning and couldn’t open my eyes. I was having an allergic reaction. I was off to the Emergency Room. I had not anticipated so many unusual and unsettling setbacks.
Over 7 months of training, I went through several ups and downs. Good runs and bad runs. I experienced many mornings of injury and soreness. I would read shoe and gear reviews religiously. On any given week, I was running 60 to 90 miles a week. My obsession was bordering on insanity.
Finally, the last month arrived and my taper started. My wife was happy to have her husband home again! Now came the meticulous research. I pored through Facebook and other ultra marathon websites looking for any edge possible. I spent hours upon hours devising my race strategy and making lists of everything needed for the race. I went as far to create a “Canadian Death Race Notebook” that I carried with me everywhere I went. I then copied the notebook for each of my crew.
A week before the race, my wife and I flew first class to Chicago and then on toCalgary. When we arrived in Calgary, my sister Katy picked us up from the airport. This was the first time I had seen her in 3 years. We spent the first night at her house and the next day was spent gathering food and other gear that I couldn’t bring from the States. I could barely stand the excitement. I felt so alive.
Before I had planned on running the Canadian Death Race, I promised my wife that we would make a vacation out of it. We stayed a night in Banff at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and received massages, which were out of this world. We spent hours in the spa and also took the time to ride the gondola up one of the mountains. The views were breathtaking. We then dined on Fondue at the Grizzly Bear, where I loaded up on protein and carbohydrates before going into the race.
The next day, we joined my sister and her boyfriend, JD, for a 5-hour car ride through Jasper National Park. The mountain peaks were absolutely some of the tallest I had ever driven through. I highly recommend seeing them. I couldn’t believe that my mission to complete the Canadian Death Race would include me seeing such spectacular sites. They were unexpected and amazing!
We finally reached Grande Cache slightly after lunch and I could hardly sit still. The town was filled with geared out runners walking around the town. A huge festival was ongoing near the recreation center with tents strewn everywhere and a massive stage right in the middle. It was an amusement park made for runners. The real amusements (no pun intended) would come the next day!
Soon after arriving, we unloaded all of our gear and headed over to the recreation center to pick up my registration packet. What a scene! Hundreds of runners ready to run through the Canadian Wilderness. I found my spot in the check in line and everything went smoothly. My race bag contained a bunch of SWAG(Stuff We All Get), my death race coin, and many other cool gadgets.
After finishing with registration, we strolled over to the Grande Cache hotel and ate a quick meal at the hotel restaurant (surprisingly good)! The grand finale was the pre-race meeting where race founder and organizer, Dale Tuck, gave an entertaining speech and prepared us for the next day’s torture!
After setting out my race day outfit and preparing all of my gear for the next morning, I hopped into bed around 9 p.m. I felt like a kid in a candy shop, which didn’t help me falling asleep. I tried and tried but couldn’t seem to sleep. Finally around 11 pm, I slowly drifted off, only to wake up at 3 am. What the hell!? So not fair. I tossed and turned and eventually got out of bed and grabbed some breakfast at Noelle’s (Next Door to the Grande Cache Hotel) around 4:30 a.m. The cashier informed me that I was their first customer! Go figure. I ordered a breakfast bagel with eggs, bacon and cheese. Delicious. This town definitely surprised me with their food. I sat down in the “town theatre” (nice and cozy) and watched a small part of Avatar, which happened to be showing at the time. Around 5:45am I started to get sleepy and made my way back to the hotel and crashed for two hours.
My alarm sounded and I hopped out of bed anxious to get the race started. After putting on all my gear, we headed to the starting line, which was packed with runners. I was nervous. Both my wife and sister tried to calm me down. It was a blessing to have such a great support crew.
Finally, I squeezed my way into the center of the pack and tried to relax. My heart rate was unusually high. The Canadian National Anthem rang loud over the surrounding speakers and for the first time, I started to become a little emotional. My eyes watered a little. Seven long months of dedication and hard work were about to come to fruition. This is what I had been waiting for. This was my final exam
The weather was absolutely gorgeous. Not to hot and not to cold. No rain and only a few clouds in the sky. I was ready.
The gun fired! We were off. I took it easy the first quarter mile. I looked at my Garmin and realized my pace was a little to fast. Eventually, I settled into a rhythm where I bounced along with the music from my iPod. It was finally happening. I was grinning ear to ear, but at the same time was scared to death (no pun intended) inside. Negative thoughts started running through my head. What if I missed the cutoffs? Did I go out to fast? Did I train enough? It was at this point that I decided just to have fun.
The first four miles passed with ease. That all changed as soon as I stepped off the pavement and onto the dirt path. This was my first time on the course and I didn’t know what to expect. As I entered the woods of Leg 1, I couldn’t help but think, “This is much steeper and much harder than I had planned for.” I steadily charged ahead. One look at my heart rate changed all of that. It was holding at 160 BPM, much higher than my planned 140 BPM! My steady jog slowly turned into a brisk walk. As I trudged along, I chitchatted with some fellow runners including fellow Facebooker and friend Stefan Czapalay. After months of chatting online this was the first time we had spoken to one another. Surreal.
I charged into the first transition five minutes under my targeted time. The cowbells and whistles gave me a huge adrenaline rush. I found my crew who had followed my instructions perfectly. I remember seeing them and letting off a sigh of relief. A friendly face was just what I needed. My crew put everything out for easy access. After switching my shoes and socks and exchanging my hydration pack, I raced out of the exchange and into Leg 2.
Leg 2, considered by many to be the hardest leg, kicked my butt. I felt great going up until the altitude seemed to zap all of my energy all at once. My preparation for the Death Race didn’t include any altitude training and I felt it. Then, the cramps started to come in waves. I had calf cramps, toe cramps, inner thigh cramps, and side cramps. After reaching the top of Flood Mountain, I knew that I had to get back down as quickly as possible. As I raced down to the slugfest, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The trail was so steep in parts that runners were sliding down on their bum’s! My first thought was “why in the hell would anyone put a trail right here.” I shook my head and trudged on. More than a few times, I tripped over roots and tree logs. At one point, I stopped and thought about what I was doing to myself. A slight grin crossed my face. At that moment, I couldn’t have imagined any other place I’d rather be.
You have to remember at this point, that I had never seen the course and had no idea what to expect. As I made my way up Grande, the cramps came back again along with the fatigue. Fortunately, the view from the top made it all worth it! That is until I peered down the “power line” or the trail that I was supposed to be running down. The smile on my face turned to one of shock and fear. A thought cross my mind “How do people run down this?” It was at this point in time that my poles became my saving grace. I learned how to skip along while hopping side to side; think runner meets skier! Every few minutes though, I stopped to let my quads take a breather. More than a few times, I slipped down the rocky slope only to catch myself on a root or tree. As I reached the bottom, a crowd of onlookers cheered and this gave me enough spirit to run back into town. At just about 5 hours, I finished the infamous Leg 2. Boy, was I beat.
As I sat down at the designated spot my crew had chosen, I realized just how tired my body felt. It was at this moment, the first signs of weakness showed. I had trained my mind to push the negative thoughts back and to concentrate on positives ones. I tried to concentrate on what felt good rather than what felt bad. My crew helped tremendously with this by providing encouragement. I knew that I just needed to keep moving. Ten minutes later, I was slowly trotting out of town and onto the old mine road.
Leg 3, is one of the easier, if not the easiest, legs out of the five. That being said, many have trouble with the heat and humidity. I knew that I had hit my first wall at the exchange of Leg 2 and that I needed to break through it to keep my wits about me. As I trudged along, I noticed a slight increase in my leg turnover and unconsciously realized that I was back. My pace quickened and not too much later, I was burning down the hills and making good time on the flats. Of course, I walked all of the inclines. Even the small ones! It was at this juncture; that my mind started to wonder away from the race and the trail.
The time passed with ease and I was surprised when I looked down at my GPS and noticed that I only had just a few miles to go into the Leg 3 exchange. I was making good time and was actually right on schedule. That was until; I found out from a fellow runner that Race HQ’s had extended the length of Leg 3 just before the race started. Apparently, I had missed that announcement! This was my first major hiccup, as I had only brought enough water for the original distance. The strategy was to minimize the weight factor. Luckily enough, that same runner had carried extra water and was nice enough to give me some. The rules state that any runner in the race is allowed to help out a fellow racer. The water gave me what I needed to finish the leg on schedule. As I was running into the exchange, my wife bounded over and ran alongside of me (of course not on the actual course…I didn’t want to get disqualified). What a feeling though! That’s what I call spousal support.
The high that I felt coming into the exchange quickly dissipated when I realized that my crew had chosen a spot for my equipment that doubled back towards the trail I had just run. The actual length couldn’t have been more than a quarter of a soccer field. It’s amazing how the smallest thing upsets you after having just run 65 kilometers. Nonetheless, it was enough to throw me into a little rampage. Though, I was quick enough to realize my mistake and made an effort towards providing an apology to my crew. I sat down and quickly switched into a fresh pair of socks. My confidence at this point was high and I became careless. I made a huge mistake by carelessly eating whatever was put in front of me. I ate pretzels, brownies, gels, bananas, and candy. The result wasn’t pretty.
As I marched out of the exchange and into Leg 4, my body didn’t understand what was happening. My stomach wanted to digest and my mind wanted to run. The end result was a pile of my stomach contents left along the trail. On top of the upset stomach, my body simply wouldn’t stay cool and I had to take little rest stops every few minutes. The hill leading up to Mt. Hamel didn’t help things much. I reached the plateau and immediately started feeling better.
The next few miles seemed to roll by with ease. My mind tried to rationalize the distance that I had left to cover. It was simple math, but at this point it might as well have been advanced calculus. I gave up and kept moving forward.
The second climb up Hamel started gradually and I thought to myself, “This is manageable.” I rounded a corner and peered up the mountain to see what appeared as a goat trail that switched back and forth towards the top. “No way! That can’t be the path. It simply can’t be.” Unfortunately, it was.
It was at this point, that I ran into a fellow death racer who had run out of water. It was Jack Cook, Canadian Death Race Record Holder (which changed after this race). He had asked one of the race volunteers for a bottle of water. The volunteer politely declined.
It states in the rules that racers cannot receive help from anyone but other racers. How do you turn down Jack Cook? I hesitantly gave him one of my bottles. Fortunately, I had carried more than I needed but it did give me a cause of concern. Meeting him on the trail gave me a little adrenaline rush. It was enough to carry me up the first quarter of Mt. Hamel. It was at this point that I sat down on a rock, pulled out a sandwich and enjoyed the gorgeous Canadian Rockies. Now, that’s a hard feeling to beat.
The second half leading up to the summit of Mt. Hamel proved to be a little more challenging. I managed to murmur a few curse words under my breath as I wearily made my way to the top. While taking a second to admire the view, a sharp female voice rang out behind me telling me “Drop your gear, run to the end of this path, and grab a prayer flag.” She meant business! I did as I was told and upon reaching the prayer flags. I knelt over to grab one and nearly had a heart attack. About five feet away, stood a cliff that descended hundreds of feet straight down. That certainly woke me up. As I made my way back, I couldn’t help but think, “What if I lost my balance?”
The descent down Mt. Hamel was not nearly as steep as that of the slugfest or the power line, but the race had already taken its toll on my body. My only goal was to get down before sunset. Light was imperative at this point. The descent was unforgiving, as it was littered with ruts and boulders. Running in the dark with a headlight would have been a huge mental hurdle that I would have had to overcome. Fortunately, I made it down at dusk and had time to spare before reaching the next aid station.
As I reached the Ambler Loop Aid station, it was enticing to sit down, chat with the race organizers, and delay the inevitable. Anything to take my mind off of what was to come. As I refilled my water bottles, I quickly did an analysis of how my body was holding up and was surprised to find that there were no “real” problems. I mounted my headlamp and forced myself to move quickly out of the aid station. The dark gravel road before me was pitch dark and eerie. At this point in the race, my body was beyond the point of being scared. I remember thinking if something did come out and grab me, “What could I do?” The best I could manage to do was to move forward at a very slow jog. To pass the time, I partnered up with a relay runner. She was a nurse from Canada and her conversation helped lift my spirits. The loop didn’t take long and soon I was back at the aid station I had just left from. It was at this point that things went from great to just plain bad.
As I took off out of the Ambler Loop Aid station and towards the next transition, my headlamp stopped working. Fortunately, course rules state that you must carry an additional light in case of something like this. I brought two small MAG lights and extra headlamp to be safe. While running, I dropped one of the MAG lights and didn’t have the patience to go back and look for it. Then the second headlamp battery simply died. That left me with one little handheld MAG light. Not ideal. I still had a good 7 kilometers to go until the next exchange. Fortunately, most of it was on a flat gravel road. I kept on moving forward until I felt a burning sensation in one of my hands. It was the MAG light. Apparently, those things get hot, really hot! Now, I was tossing it from hand to hand every minute or so to alleviate the heat. To make matters worse the light started to dim a little. The extra heat was draining the battery much to fast. Fear struck at this point. I looked around and analyzed my current situation.
Here I was, in the middle of the Canadian Rockies, running in the middle of the night. I made the decision to conserve the light in case I “really” needed it. I remember reading an article about night vision at some point in my training. I closed my eyes in the dark for a minute or so and tried to adjust my eyes to the darkness. The moon, although not full, dimly lit the path and provided enough light to continue. I was frustrated, tired, and beaten, but it was working!
A second option presented itself when a relay runner started to pass me. I decided to kick it up a gear and tried to keep pace. The idea was to use his light as a guide for my own running path. It worked for a while and I made good time, but eventually I had to drop off. He was simply moving to fast for my own good. I utilized this strategy a few different times before deciding that my MAG light would be able to provide enough power to reach the next aid station where I had extra lights. As wimpy as the light was, it did the trick. During the last stretch of Leg 4, my emotions got the better of me. I was really doing this!
Onlookers, volunteers and race organizers lined the trail coming into the exchange. Whistles, cheers, and words of encouragement were shouted as I headed into the aid station. My legs felt as light as air, my heart swelled, and my eyes started to get watery. I heard loud cheers and whistles from my crowd. I looked towards the crowd and saw my crew. I saw the pride in their eyes. They were happy to see me and I was elated to see them. I reached the transition ahead of plan. I had just completed over seven hours of running. Only 24 kilometers left!
While sitting at the aid station, I switched into new socks and decided to finish the race with my road running shoes. The added cushion helped ease the pain in my already swollen feet. I grabbed an extra headlamp that I had purposely bought for Leg 5 and gorged myself with caffeine and energy gels. It was at this point that I couldn’t help but notice that my mind was sharp and alert after 17 hours of running. My body, on the other hand, was a totally different story.
I bounded off into Leg 5 leaving my crew and the crowd of onlookers behind me. That bounding stride soon turned into a crawling climb, as I scrambled up a steep embankment that led into the woods. A voice yelped out behind me. I turned to find a relay runner scrambling up the bank after me. She asked me “Do you mind if I partner up with you?” Not one to decline company at this point, I said “of course.” We headed into the dark together and I let her lead the way. Her company proved to be a huge advantage at this point. First, the conversation was a nice distraction from the pain my feet and legs were experiencing. Second, she hit just about every root and rock on the trail before I did, thereby, alerting me to what was to come. At this stage of the race, this was a huge advantage. Spraining an ankle or breaking a toe could derail me from finishing. Especially, since the trail is littered with roots, sticks, and logs.
My pace had slowed considerably to a brisk walk with spurts of running. I concentrated on simply putting one foot in front of the other and nothing else. Everything seemed to hurt at this point. I reached the final aid station and grabbed a glass of Gatorade and a few energy gels. Soon after, I descended into Hell’s Gate, where I proceeded to hand my death race coin to the ferryman. The small boat ferried my running partner across a swiftly flowing river and onto an embankment of rocks. The drop down of the boat must have been a good four feet. It doesn’t seem like much, but after the beating my legs had just taken, it felt as if I had just jumped off the roof of a house. As I landed, I winced in pain.
The second half of Leg 5 proved to be the most difficult. Not because of the terrain, but because of the state my body and mind were in. My running partner became confident with her night running ability and took off down the trail, leaving my alone in the forest. No longer could I run. I walked alone, letting the cool night air dry the sweat from my face. Walking alone left me with only my thoughts and I admired the state of mind that I was in. I had pushed my body and mind to the brink of collapse and had proved to myself that I was capable of anything. I would walk away from this race a different man from the one that had started. I took a deep breath, puffed out my chest and began to run. I eventually caught up with my friend. Another runner eventually joined us. His name was Bill Jordan and he was also running the race solo. I made an effort to stick with her and Bill until the finish.
The three of us were in high spirits as we exited the woods onto the paved road heading back into Grande Cache. As we headed into town, we all broke out into a run. It was now very early in the morning but the sun had not risen just yet. My wife, my sister, and her boyfriend were situated about 100 meters from the finish. They whooped and cheered with all their might. I sprinted towards the finish, forgetting that I had just run 125 kilometers through some of the toughest terrain. My legs felt nothing and the pain was no longer. I crossed that finish line with hands held high. I doubled over, not in pain, but in relief. My wife and sister came up to congratulate me.
I had spent 7 months training, day in and day out, and it all culminated into one single point in time. I was tired and beat, but still standing. What a moment!
I finished in 20:51:56. Good enough for a 59th place finish of 418 racers.
The high I was on was short lived. The pain returned and walking only a few short steps became a task. I had nothing left. First things first, I walked directly over to the hamburger stand and devoured that morsel like a starved wolf.
Back at the hotel, I filled the bathtub with ice and eased my body into the icy cold water. It felt strangely good. The moment alone gave me the chance to think back over what I had just accomplished. As I sat in the tub shivering, I simply couldn’t grasp what I had just done.
I slept well that night. Better than I had in along time. Not because I was tired, sore and beaten. I slept because I was satisfied. My life couldn’t have been better!
The next day, I accepted my award medal with pride. I walked away from Grande Cache that day a changed man.
Michael Bryan Wentz (Born 1980) is an ultramarathon enthusiast and finance professional currently residing in Los Angeles, California. He holds an MBA in Finance from The Thunderbird School Of Global Management and a Marketing Degree from Texas State University.
He started training specifically for The Canadian Death Race on January 1st, 2010.
Michael finished the 2010 Canadian Death Race for the first time in 20:51:56, good enough for 59th place out of 418 soloists.
Here is the video and my CDR STORY chronicling my participation in the race. No laughing please!